Batman Returns: Gothic Fairytale

Batman is not a self-aware person. He takes a stand against crime but without a goal. Like any child, he responds to the problems in his life with an undefined hatred that he only tells himself counts as vengeance (perhaps after Alfred has tucked him in for the night). He is a bedtime story with no moral, a thing of shadows and wings and little boy screams (that’s what Batmans are made of). Turning him into a James Bond-esque super spy or glorified beat cop – in other words, pretending that he’s self-aware – isn't wrong on principle. Re-interpretations can always be judged on their own merits. But they cannot change the fact that when you think about him enough, he always turns into a night terror gathered up reluctantly into the shape of a man. He is a little boy and he gets littler the darker he pretends to be.

Who does that sound like? Tim Burton is perfect for him, the director who gets funnier the more serious he tries to be. Burton must have been sketching Batman before he made him, at the back of the class, in swirls of claw and wing and wild hair. He sketched him without Bruce Wayne, as though the billionaire alter ego was just the skeleton holding up the bat-suit like a hat rack. He must have drawn the spiritual thing that Batman represents, the icaronycteris that criminals see wafting around corners. Bruce Wayne really is the alternate ego for Burton’s Batman, a term which is usually a misnomer. To Burton, Batman is the creature that occasionally contains himself in a human suit to blend in with the day-shift, attend meanings, go on dates, host parties. Bruce Wayne is the disguise.

Batman is the one who gets the girl in Batman and Batman Returns, while Bruce is a loner, aloof, a non-entity in his own house. People don’t recognize him, while Batman crashes all the parties and rubs wingtips with the ruling elite. While Bruce is wrapped up in tea steam and bat-pajamas, Batman is out on the town. Is Batman the man Bruce Wayne wishes he was? A workout apotheosized into a persona? When someone sees him unmasked for the first time, they say, "Bruce Wayne ... why are you dressed up like Batman?" He even goes to a masquerade ball as Batman, but dressed as Bruce Wayne (this leads to the best possible mutual reveal for the star-crossed vigilantes, something which Batman did in a vague aside without a tenth of the loving angst).

Batman Returns is as perfect at portraying this duality as live-action has been, though there were many angry mothers whose frightened children screamed to see it happen (or else begged to let them see for themselves, which to a 90s mom was probably just as bad). It’s a Christmastime nightmare on a sprawling series of theatrical sets (most of the Warner Bros. lot was either booked by Batman or hosting his penguins, in a series of locations all composed into the frigid fantasy space of a dark city). It’s a Christ allegory with a monster fetish. It’s unsettling, delectable, colorful as a bruise. Not the sort of thing you expect to see in a Happy Meal.

The Penguin is born on Christmas (and returns thirty-three years later to be crucified). His wealthy parents leave him in the sewer. His fingers web together, his teeth sharpen, and he develops an unsightly habit of squawking like Burgess Meredith. His eyes brood like shiny beads set into that pall of makeup, above a hooked prosthetic nose and gratuitous gut that begs the question of where Penguin ends and Danny DeVito begins. Meredith was wily and well-loved when he took this character at his word, as an aristocrat and a gentleman. DeVito, an appendage of Burton no doubt, is more infatuated with the monster. His blood is gunky and blue. He wakes up with his eyeshadow already on.

Penguin’s master plan (for there must always be a master plan) is not to destroy Gotham, kill Batman, or blow something up. His plan is to kill all of Gotham’s first-born sons, as much a punishment for being mistreated as a personal penance for the crime of being born (Does he hate himself above all? Did Herod?). This film would not have existed if the marketers had found out what it was about – in our modern world of moviemaking-by-marketing, it perhaps never would have been conceived in the first place. Like an unwanted child, this makes it all the more beautiful, and worth saving.

Neither against or with the Penguin, Catwoman slinks into frame, in leather so tight she becomes a vacuformed doll, lewdly creviced and pale as bones. She’s fond of licking her leather forearm, making phallic wordplay, and cartwheeling into danger. Michelle Pfeiffer works so well in the part because while she is physically at ease, she is also damaged. A wonderful room trashing scene pits push-over secretary Selina Kyle and all the cute girliness of her hum-drum existence against the Catwoman persona, utilitarian, roaring. Her costume is knitted like a self-bondage, perhaps to contain the girl she now represses as a weakness (there's a lot of talk about "sexism" in this movie by name, as though the term was brand new).

She has no plan but to get revenge on the man who created her, perhaps for the sin of doing so. Slithery businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) has something to do with that. But Batman gets in the way; she just wants to sink her claws into him (tall and handsome she could get over, but where else could she find someone this dark?). You get the impression that she struggles to entice him without falling for him. She wants to have him because she doesn’t want to want him (that’s what pathetic Selina would have done). She so resembles the shadow thing that Batman sees in himself, down to the repression of his human beneath leather folds and stitching and small mammals, that Batman loving her is as self-revealing as masturbation. Alfred (Michael Gough), who wishes Bruce would get out more, would hardly be surprised.

Pfeiffer is not the most cat-like of all Catwomen (the honor remains purrfectly safe with Eartha Kitt). But she is the most changed, an evil goddess spirit of transformation and empowerment. I dislike lists of “Best Movie Quotes Ever” because they don’t always take delivery into account: if they did, Pfeiffer saying “Meow” at one particular point (you’ll know it – it’s an event in itself) would belong with the best of them.

Three villains all swirling in this broody melancholia are enough to make any fan of modern comic book movies squirm: we know what Spider-Man 3, Batman and Robin, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 all failed to accomplish with an overabundance of adversaries. But where those others played bit parts in a refrigerator soup of script ideas, Burton coordinates his villains into his whole picture. By re-evaluating them and their relation to Batman, Batman Returns emerges as more than an action blockbuster sequel. All alone, playing off its symbols in Burton’s imagination, it becomes a modern fable.

Bruce Wayne was filled with childish emotions when he lost his parents. He hated himself, his city, his world. He hated the kinds of people who ruined his life. He probably vowed to kill them before he came up with something much crueler: he vowed to make them afraid to be alive. The persona that entered into the real world (or Gotham’s facsimile of it) out of the shell of Bruce Wayne could have taken many forms. Batman Returns offers four possibilities.

Like the Penguin, Batman could have remained an orphan, monstrous in isolation, lonely and vengeful. Like Max Shreck (whose name you may recognize as the actor who played the vampire in Nosferatu, announcing the allusion), he could have become sterile and cruel in grand Gothic offices behind monolithic nameplates. Or like Catwoman he could have been consumed by the night, becoming a spirit of alteration, all vigilante and no man. “We’re the same,” he tells her, “split right down the center.”

As in a fairytale, these are not characters in themselves so much as stand-ins for the feelings they give you. They are Batman’s possibilities, his eventualities. They are his living imperfections. The fact that they exist is proof of what he could have been; the fact that they die is proof of his humanity. What is left when all three are gone? The sum of them is all the terror that went fluttering into the mind of a little boy whose world came down around him. Removing them leaves only Bruce Wayne – he is the climax, not the cause or the subject, of Batman Returns. When he tears off the latex bat in front of everyone and speaks, for the first time, as himself, we have to wonder if Batman will ever exist again, now that he has the capacity to fall in love.

There is no better site for this transformation than the Gotham City concocted by Burton and production designer Bo Welch out of gargoyles and matte paintings and slanted shadows and studio snow. Batman Returns is stage-like and the stage reflects the players. As in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there is a distinct reaction in physical space to the mental state of its inhabitants, as in a cold and cavernous penguin lair with toys laying about like the artworks of a manic, a slanted, dominant perversity in the skyscrapers and their shadows, a moody and repressive Bat-cave full of devotion and self-harm and unintentional awe (the door to Bruce's hideaway is an Iron Maiden). This space is a perfect framework for the performance of change and all its melancholy, temporary bliss, and weird terror. Christopher Nolan affected the mythos in many ways, but there's one I've never quite gotten over: he took Burton’s poetry and tempered it, as you'd take molten material and hammer out one sheet of cold blue metal. He made it more industrial and I've never stopped longing for that Gotham out of time, that tortured fantasy of sex and pain and longing.

Batman himself is like architecture, towering and aloof, purposeful in his own shadow. Michael Keaton still plays the darkest Batman ever, not because he is the toughest or most imposing but because he is the most vulnerable. This Batman is in a torment; even when he acts civil, you can see the depressed child in him. What would make someone become such a creature? We see it play out through his villains. Sadness has deposed him from his reality and turned it into a fairytale. Instead of becoming a hardened technocrat in a realistic Chicago, this Batman breathes in the expressionism around him, the Danny Elfman score that is no less haunting and slanted than the mind so broken that it resorts to heroism as a form of self-harm. Burton’s fable is not more comforting or more real, but its space is more than its setting: it is the true subject of Batman Returns, building meaning not out of a heist movie plot or philosophy jargon, but out of symbols and shadows and even screams. And that, as Catwoman says, is so much yummier.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Tim Burton

Daniel Waters (screenplay)

Daniel Waters (story)

Sam Hamm (story)

Bob Kane and Bill Finger (characters by)

Batman/Bruce Wayne Michael Keaton
The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot Danny DeVito
Catwoman/Selina Kyle Michelle Pfeiffer
Max Shreck Christopher Walken
Alfred Pennyworth Michael Gough
Commissioner James Gordon Pat Hingle
The Penguin's Father Paul Reubens

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